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06 May, 2013

"Carparchaeology" (I only wish I'd coined that one.)

My favorite historian (once Aunt Leila died), recently ran a series of posts about the recent spate of archaeological sites in British carparks: knights and ladies, no less than the bones of King Richard the Freaking Third, and what have you.

Historians are a bit less cynical than archaeologists. Probably a lot less, for we terrain-walkers and dirt-diggers know that the written record is biased, often composed and edited, and paid for by the winners; we demand physical evidence. Garbage, from the first dung-heap to yesterday's stratum at the municipal landfill, does not lie like the printed word. Individuals may destroy something or throw it away where they think nobody will know, but at a societal level, we can in fact know what they ate and made by looking at what they shat and broke. We can piece together what they did when the climate changed or disaster struck. We can see how much wealth inequality they could stand before it all collapsed into famine or rebellion.

Archaeologists may demand physical evidence as proof, especially for conclusions we can't cur (opposite of 'concur,' and another creative linguistic nugget invented not by me), but we also love to speculate. Although nobody is serving me a beer as I do so, let me speculate on why archaeology should keep turning up in the carparks of the British Isles:

  1. Regulatory - Speculatory, this reason, but I cannot help but think that Britain has a historic preservation review process that causes archaeologists to take a look before some new development. So you want to take that carpark and build something that requires a deep and perhaps ruinous foundation? Do some archaeology first before you destroy heritage. [Also, I like to do fake accents, and utter words like "Reh-gyoo-LATE-ree."]
  2. The Development Cycle - I may be making up this phrase, but it refers to something real. Carparks often turn out to be an interim phase between the old building that was razed and the new one yet to be built, a way for the landowner to make a few bucks while awaiting a better economic climate for construction. Or, they are part of an old farm or other "open space" being brought into the urban sphere, although again this tends to be a temporary phase, prior to a new commercial structure. In either case, enter Regulation before the new edifice arises.
  3. Stratigraphy/Taphonomy - Leveling the rubble of the old building or laying down  gravel and bitumen on a field are both additive processes, stratigraphically speaking. "Taphonomy" is just a bit of gibberish invented by archaeologists to mystify the public and protect our jobs, and it boils down to the things that happen to a site after the artifacts are originally deposited. Until very recently, in most urban settings, people cart away the valuables and the good building materials, and then either flatten out the ruins or deposit more stuff to make it level. Mostly, this causes the ground level to rise, which is how tells are formed. So it only stands to reason that a nice level carpark might have goodies (archaeologically speaking) beneath. Even in Leicester.
  4. Archaeologists are not all Adventurers - Generally, the majority of archaeologists would rather dig in their neighborhood than brave malarial swamps (or any swamp, honestly) or apply for a visa. [Disclosure: I am lucky enough to have found a swamp in biking distance from home, and have been digging there lately.] Consulting archaeologists recognize that digging a hole in a carpark is feasible, compared with tearing down the neighboring building and digging under its foundation. Professors tend to look for projects that can be accomplished near libraries and pubs, preferably with handy parking.
  5. Density - Writing from the Pacific Northwest (or as Asia would see it, the Pacific Northeast), where the oldest "historic" site is some moldering lumber from the 1850's, it is easy to forget that the British Isles, including some of their best carparks, have been overrun by building-building peoples for a relatively long time. Many cities there have past residents including East and West Indians, Victorians, Normans, Angles and Saxons, Vikings, Romans, and so on. So you dig a hole in London or York or any town that did not just spring up at a freeway interchange (or whatever those are called in Brittania), and you're going to intrude on the past residents. Again, things pile up.
So, there you have it. My not-quite-drunken list of reasons why carparchaeology is a promising field for any young archaeologist in regions urbanized for more than a semi-millennium. 

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